Best Albums of 2021
Photo: Guillaume Techer via Unsplash

The 75 Best Albums of 2021

Despite a global pandemic, musicians were far more active in 2021 and had time to create their finest work. It resulted in some of the best albums in years.

King Woman - Celestial Blues

65

King Woman – Celestial Blues

[Relapse]

With their second album, Celestial Blues, King Woman hone the doom-metal synergies so infectiously present on their debut, 2017’s Created in the Image of Suffering. On “Morning Star”, singer Kristina Esfandiari’s voice bobs in a welter of distorted guitars. “I was luminous / my name is Lucifer,” she moans, appropriating the biblical storyline to channel a vitriolic protest against the suppression of women and pathologizing of female sexuality. On “Golgotha”, King Woman make exemplary use of soft-loud dynamics while undergirding an irresistible melody. “It never ends,” Esfandiari repeats, pointing to the tug-of-war between heaven and hell, an astral polarization that manifests in myriad ways within the human psyche, from garden-variety ambivalence to mental illness.

The album closes with “Paradise Lost”, a tip of the hat to Milton’s opus, which, in part, places the Adam and Eve narrative within a complex religious cosmology. “It’s just the saddest story,” Esfandiari concludes, accentuating the theme of disconnection, primarily between creator and humankind. With Celestial Blues, King Woman perfect their instrumental chemistry and sonic range. Esfandiari emerges as a charismatic frontperson, an icon of metal informed by spiritual inquiry, yearning for release from the conditioned self, and the mystical hunger that defies convention. – John Amen

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Natten

64

Bremer/McCoy – Natten

[Luaka Bop]

Bremer/McCoy found something special on their fifth album, Natten. You hear it in the opening angelic sounds and warm chords. There is a balance here between terrestrial and celestial life. There is a sense of being firmly grounded while pulling at the fabric of the starry night sky. There is confidence and belief in humanity on this album but above all the feeling that permeates the album is gratitude. “When we devote all our actions to a spiritual goal, everything that we do becomes a prayer.” These are lofty words even coming from Muhammad Ali, but they apply well here.

Every note on Natten sounds like a form of prayer of gratitude, and there’s such positive energy in that. Whether you are a believer or not. The warm, soothing bass, keys, tape loops, and airy synths work on you as you go through Natten. When the album finally closes you are filled with gratitude and a positive outlook. These past two years have been troubling and fear-inducing, to say the least, but music has seldom sounded so life confirming or spiritual. Adversity will do that to you. Natten will surely make you a devotee. – Jesper Nøddeskov

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In the Meantime

63

Alessia Cara – In the Meantime

[Def Jam]

In many ways, In the Meantime feels like it completes a trilogy of albums chronicling both Alessia Cara‘s rise to fame and the unease that comes along with becoming a fully grown human being without your consent. The album is sonically and lyrically her best work yet, and proves that any process of healing is never black or white and does not exist on a straight line. Most importantly, nothing on an Alessia Cara album ever feels like filler, even when that might’ve been its purpose.

Even on shorter offerings like “Lie to Me” or “Clockwork”, the singer’s pensive lyrics remain nothing short of spellbinding for the demographic of introverted, home-bodied youngsters she first recruited back in 2015 with “Here”. While many music critics found fault with an “unfinished” quality of songwriting on her sophomore effort, The Pains of Growing, Cara has returned to finish the assignment on In the Meantime, creating another compelling body of work that feels both complete and necessary to share. – Jeffrey Davies

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Mastodon – Hushed and Grim

62

Mastodon – Hushed and Grim

[Reprise]

Throughout the 2000s, Georgian sludge/progressive metal quartet Mastodon relentlessly pushed themselves to create more colorfully intricate and conceptually rich albums. This inexorable ambition ultimately yielded the band’s masterpiece, 2009’s Crack the Skye. While their subsequent LPs were still highly enjoyable, they were either too safe or too playful to reach the same heights. Hushed and Grim doesn’t rival the group’s best collections, either, but its emphasis on purposeful arrangements and mature songwriting—building off of 2017’s Cold Dark Place EP—make it a huge step in the right direction.

This is Mastodon at their most wise, contemplative, and poised. Emotionally driven rockers like “Pain With an Anchor” and “Teardrinker” are wonderfully juxtaposed by lighter dirges such as “Had It All” and “Sickle and Peace”. Then, tracks such as “Skeleton of Splendor” and “Dagger” throw in some psychedelic weirdness for good measure. Sure, the record’s nearly 90-minute length is a tad extraneous, but there’s nothing here that doesn’t belong. As such, Hushed and Grim is easily the foursome’s best record in over a decade. – Jordan Blum

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All Hours

61

Anz – All Hours

[Ninja Tune]

It’s hard not to get excited about Anz. The Manchester-based DJ and producer is that rare talent who can take anything—hardcore, dubstep, breakbeat, jungle—and meld it beautifully with her unique pop sensibilities. This is true of her newest record, All Hours, her first release via Ninja Tune. Anz pays homage to all kinds of UK club sounds in a way that feels very accessible but never dumbed down. It’s straightforward but never too streamlined for its own good.

Much like the colorful album art, the EP’s production has a flash and shimmer that’s unmistakably cheerful and upbeat. It’s evident from the first track, “Decisions (AM Intro)”, where the sparkly, piano-laden intro gives way to twinkling pads and funky bass. The song sets the mood for the rest of the record, with the music carried along by the breezy, half-awake energy of afterparties and late-night raves. It’s an intro that feels almost too good to be an intro—there’s nothing interlude-ish about it. – Parker Desautell

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Things Take Time, Take Time

60

Courtney Barnett Things Take Time, Take Time

[Mom+Pop / Marathon Artists]

As streaming services push listeners further and further away from the physical product, it’s worth noting that a cover can still make an impact. Take the cover of Courtney Barnett‘s latest, Things Take Time, Take Time. The glossy layout of nine various shades of the same basic color is a wonderful, subtle display of all the moods that come in the form of feeling “blue”.

Not surprisingly, Barnett doesn’t express much in the form of guttural anguish on Things Take Time, Take Time. “We got angry, said some careless things / Who was wrong, remains unclear” is as close to confrontational on the wonderfully catchy “Before You Gotta Go”. And thank God. In an age where beliefs and opinions are laid out to “own”, “decimate”, or “destroy” an opposing viewpoint, Things Take Time, Take Time makes an effortless case for dialing shit back while still expressing your emotions in clear hues.

Few artists this decade have been better documenters of “the mundane” like Courtney Barnett. “Take It Day By Day” could have been lifted from almost anyone’s “check-in” call/text/Zoom reach-out during the early weeks of the pandemic. “Are you good? Are you eating? I’ll call you back next week,” Barnett sings with equal amounts of empathy and partly cloudy cheeriness. Things Take Time, Take Time beautifully makes the case for the “cooler heads will prevail” portion of the population. – Sean McCarthy

LISTEN: Bandcamp

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John Grant - Boy From Michigan

59

John Grant Boy From Michigan

[Bella Union]

John Grant‘s fifth solo album, Boy From Michigan, certainly wins this year’s award for best opening. A ghostly synth soundscape, evocative of the Blade Runner soundtrack, creates an ominous atmosphere, laying the way for Grant’s somber baritone, and some noirish saxophone accompaniment. The singer then waxes lyrical on his small-town American upbringing, juxtaposing verses that evoke innocent childhood scenes of visiting parks and apple farms with a killer chorus that speaks disturbingly of the evils of the American Dream. (It causes “scarring and angry bruising”.) He even adds a chilling talky section that sounds like Gary Numan on “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”

Happily, the epic title song not only sets the tone perfectly for the album, which combines the personal and political in a remarkably direct way, but also the standard. The 75-minute LP is a largely brooding and melancholy affair, sensitively produced by Welsh musician and friend Cate Le Bon, and dealing in rite of passage episodes that involve plenty of electronic magic. There are a few moments of playfulness (“Rhetorical Figure” and “Your Portfolio” could almost be Flight of the Conchords numbers), but it’s the keyboard ballads that win the day. “County Fair”, “The Cruise Room”, and “Just So You Know” reveal a confessional songwriter at the top of his game. Just wait, though, for the climactic masterstroke of “Billy”. – Adam Mason

LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: YouTube


58

Between the Buried and Me – Colors II

[Sumerian]

North Carolinian progressive/avant-garde death metal quintet Between the Buried and Me have long been the best at what they do. Although every album they release is heavily anticipated, Colors II took expectations to a new level. Why? Because its mere existence (as the official sequel to the band’s breakthrough 2007 opus) seemed more like a fever dream than a reality. After all, fans had been facetiously hoping for them to formally follow-up Colors for many years, and now they actually did.

And it greatly exceeded expectations. In a nutshell, the LP mixes the caustic edge of its direct precursor with the melodic accessibility of 2015’s Coma Ecliptic and the frenzied zaniness of 2018’s Automata duology. It’s ripe with affectively serene detours (“Sfumato”, “Stare Into the Abyss”), thunderously off-the-wall celebrations (“Fix the Error”, “Prehistory”), and immensely hooky melodies (“Revolution in Limbo”, “The Future Is Behind Us”). It contains plenty of allusions to Colors, too, so it really feels like a proper continuation. At times beautiful, brutal, and utterly bizarre – often simultaneously – Colors II is absolutely remarkable. – Jordan Blum

LISTEN: Spotify

WATCH: YouTube


57

Jane Weaver Flock

[Fire]

English singer Jane Weaver, exponent of cosmic folk, psych-rock, and all things avant-garde, has gone all-out pop on her 11th album, Flock. It’s pop that’s inspired, so she claims, by Lebanese torch songs and 1980s Russian aerobics records rather than Steps, or the Spice Girls, but still, you know, pop. Make way, then, for uplifting melodies, great hooks, catchy riffs, and DJ-pleasing beats, covering a heck of a lot of ground from European pop to disco to glam to R&B.

“Heartlow” is a chiming and jubilant tune that manages to combine a girl-group sound with some Stereolab-style trippiness. “The Revolution of Super Visions”, on the other hand, is the kind of inventive funk song that Prince used to do in his heyday, with a nothing if not arresting refrain: “Do you look at yourself and find nothing?” Elsewhere, Weaver outdoes Goldfrapp in the glam-pop stakes on “Solarised”, all adding up to a much-needed shot in the arm for folks weary of the world’s problems. – Adam Mason

LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: YouTube


Glow On

56

Turnstile Glow On

[Roadrunner]

Glow On begins like an unreleased Boards of Canada track, ends with a hyped-up homage to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), and for the other 33ish minutes, gives listeners a hurricane-force display of joyous, fist-pumping choruses as well as frenzied, hardcore aggression. Producer Mike Elizondo (whose credits include Fiona Apple, Mastodon, and Ed Sheeran) provides a buoyant sheen to songs like “Endless” and “Holiday”.

The real pleasures of Glow On come in admiring how seamlessly Turnstile incorporates genres into a two-and-a-half-minute song without sounding the least bit derivative. “Underwater Boi” ping-pongs from Green Day’s early exercises in pop-punk to an almost shoegaze sound that would make fellow Baltimoreans Beach House proud. For such a shape-shifting band, it’s no wonder that singer/songwriter Blood Orange, no stranger to blurring genres himself, finds a home in “Alien Love Call”. Without a second wasted, Glow On is a staggering evolution of a band that already had proven itself forward-looking. – Sean McCarthy

LISTEN: Spotify

WATCH: YouTube


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